A r t i c l e
Never before in print
Finalist in Twilight Zone magazine short story contest
TRY NOT TO THINK OF PINK ELEPHANTS
He had just started down the alley when the truck roared around the corner behind him. Although the alley was narrow, there was plenty of room for him and the truck. So he moved to the right as the gears shifted loudly behind him. The booming engine echoed off the brick canyon. For safety's sake, he turned to watch the truck's progress, and he realized that the headlights were bearing down on him on his side of the alley. (Hey, watch what you're doing you crazy son of a...) and then with dawning horror, it came to him. (The phone call! It hadn't felt right.) And the suspicion that had gnawed at him at the time suddenly rained back down on him multiplied tenfold. He began running even before turning away from the truck. He caught his own body off guard and stumbled, but regained his footing immediately. (Who? What? Forget that, you fool! Run!)
His eyes searched wildly in the light of the headlamps as he zigzagged in front of the gaining truck. No fire escapes. No doorways. No side alleys. Just straight high walls. (It's gotta be the longest goddam alley on the longest goddam block in L.A. Oh, man, what a setup.)
The air tore at his lungs. He felt the heat of the engine, tasted the bile from his stomach, smelled a rat, saw his death, his life flash before his eyes, a doorway! On his right, a funnel of light from a lone bare overhead bulb hardly illuminated the doorstep flush with the wall. He headed straight for it. Now the radiator fan was blowing his hair with its hot breath. He stumbled on the step. A wheel nipped at his heel. He jerked his foot spastically onto the step as he felt for the door handle. He leaned his right shoulder against the door. It opened!
Before he was inside, the fender and bumper hit him in the back, throwing him foreword. Tons of rolling metal pinned his left shoulder against the square brick corner of the doorway, turning it into a giant shearing machine. The screeching metal sound of the truck scraping the doorway and the side of the building was loud. But the sound of pulverizing bone as his arm was torn off bypassed his ears, traveling through his frame directly to his brain. And it was loud! So very loud! Much louder than the truck.
The truck and the wall rolled the arm away like a child rolling a clay snake. As the arm spun madly away, it squirted out the remaining blood. The sliced shoulder end rotated, alternately slapping the wall and the truck, leaving a dozen evenly spaced, nearly identical dripping dark red autographs before falling to the ground. He leaned with his forehead against the doorway and clamped his right hand onto the searing inferno of a stump. There was a pulsing, spattering sound as blood gushed from under his hand and landed on the pavement. Tears of agony brimmed his eyes, fogging his vision. His eyes squeezed shut. His lungs nearly burst as he held in the scream. His eyes squinted open one more time. He saw what was left of his arm laying half on, half off a bloodied newspaper about four yards from the doorway. It was still covered with a tattered shirt sleeve and grotesquely flattened. The fingers still twitched. That's when he passed out...
.....And that's when he woke up. His head jerked off the pillow. He lay back down carefully. Everything seemed to hurt. His head pounded. His mouth tasted like a dirty baby diaper. He put his hand on his forehead. His eyeballs ached, having just completed a crazy game of twin pinballs spinning, careening and bouncing under his closed eyelids. All his muscles were on fire, especially his chest, the frantic rise and fall of which was only now beginning to slow from the heavy running cadence of his dream. He lay flat on his back in the hospital bed. The sheet was discolored with wet patches that clung to him even through the extra layer of the hospital robe. Sweat pasted his dark brown hair in ragged peaks across his forehead.
It had been horrible enough when it actually happened, but why did he have to suffer with the detailed replay of the awful memory every single night--sometimes more than once? The worst of it was, it felt exactly like the real thing, complete down to the last painful detail . Up until the "accident" (vocally, he always put quotes around the word) he had considered his photographic memory (particularly acute when it came to violence) a blessing. But now, now that it was turned around on him... Well, at least they hadn't tried to get to him in here. They had to know he wasn't dead. And they did want him dead. He was sure or that. They. . . They? But who were they? There had been so many. So many who would be glad to see him dead.
He looked over at the little clock on the night stand. 7:37 AM. (No need to go back to sleep) he thought, relieved. That meant no chance of another one of the dreams. They'd be in with his breakfast soon, and later Dr. Stutes would be in for one final check before he would be released.
He pulled the new arm out from under the sheet and looked down at it. It was totally normal and the swelling and bruising at the shoulder caused by the operation had completely subsided. He felt no pain, no awkwardness in it. He held both arms together in front of him chest, comparing the computerized prosthetic arm to the real arm. They were identical mirror images of each other down to the finest detail including scars, fingerprints and hair.
He flexed the new hand and went through a few of the exercises they'd given him. He ended with his favorite, an exercise of his own design. It was the hand signal used by the hearing impaired for his pet phrase. He made the motions with a furious snapping while his eyes squinted in hatred and his jaw muscles rippled. "What goes around, comes around. What goes around, comes around!" (Those goddam assholes. I'll show 'em all! Every last goddam one of 'em!) "What goes around, comes around!" He hadn't thought much about work lately, but now that he had his arm back, he was ready. And then he somewhat nervously wondered if 'they' were too.
"So, how are you feeling today, Mr. Kruger?" asked Dr. Stutes in his honestly cheery way. Another man Max had never seen before came in with his doctor. He wore a white jacket similar to Dr. Stutes' and seemed much less cheery.
"Oh, fine, fine. I can hardly wait to get on with my... (work) life," he said with real enthusiasm.
"This is Dr. K. He's got one of those big long Polish names too hard to pronounce, so we just call him Dr. K."
(Yes) nodded Max. He had run into someone like that.
No smile from Dr. K.
"He's the man most responsible for getting you the new arm at such a small cost. He wrote the program that makes your arm respond to the orders from your brain. He came with me to see how it's working. Dr., this is Max Kruger."
Max went through some of the exercises accompanied by happy nodding and comments by Dr. Stutes and solemn, concentrated brow-knitting from Dr. K. Dr. Stutes signed the papers and told him that he wanted to see Max in his office in one week. "Be sure to call me here or at the office if you have any trouble at all. And remember, please be very careful when lifting or squeezing anything. It's about twice as strong as the arm you lost, and is capable of causing a lot of pain. It can lift a weight much too heavy for your back to support. Also, it won't be totally sealed to your flesh for awhile yet. Okay? All right then. Let's get you out of here, what do you say? "
Max got dressed and went home using the new hand as much as he could. He hardly had to think about it at all. It was so natural that at one point, he unconsciously scratched his nose and laughed about it afterward. As he got into the elevator at his apartment building, he started to reach for the button with his right hand, stopped, smiled and used his new left hand to touch the circle marked twenty. The light came on behind it, and the number glowed orange. The door closed...
... behind him in the apartment. It smelled stale and musty. (Be friggin' lucky if I didn't get ripped off while I was gone) he thought. He walked across the large well-furnished living room to the glass patio door and slid it open. (Out with the bad air, in with the bad air) he shook his head at his joke as he stepped outside and looked out over L.A.
L.A. Yeah, that was his oyster, and he couldn't wait to get back to work cracking bones in it. There were so many people out there that borrowed money at illegal interest rates, and it was his job to issue "little warnings" when they couldn't pay, (if you know what I mean) he smiled slyly hatefully. And once in a while he ran into some of his old school mates "who had let their credit run out." And Max loved these jobs best of all. All through school he'd been left on the outside. The jokes were always on him. Starting in elementary school, he had been tall and awkward. And when the kids chose sides for kickball, even the girls were chosen before Max. (Thirty third out of a class of thirty two) he thought bitterly.
When he got to high school, a grim determination took over. He started lifting weights, and as his body built, so did his confidence. But everyone still treated him like dirt. So he decided they'd have to pay. He didn't know how, but he'd make them all pay. That's when he started hanging out with a bad crowd. The year he graduated, he started making people pay.
His work was strictly face to face. He loved the physical contact, the bones breaking and, oddly enough, the smell of blood. But most of all he loved the look of fear in their eyes. No matter who it was, they begged. He made them begs and then he still hurt them. He wanted to get to work.
Max came back in from the balcony and started calling his connections. He had mixed feelings about calling these guys. On the one hand, he was itching to get back to work. But on the other hand, these were some of the guys that he suspected of wanting to do him in. One of his bosses, Jerry Golden had told him to cool it after one of Max's "warnings" had gone too far. "After all," Jerry had said, "we can't collect from the dead. Besides, that kind of thing draws too much attention." The bum was the only one Max had ever killed. It had been an accident...more or less. (But what the hey. Maybe it put a little fear of the devil in some of the rest of 'em.) Max had just shrugged his shoulders at the time and said "Oops". He had no conscience. They were all scum to Max. Golden had warned him to be more careful. But Golden? No, he'd had Max do a couple of jobs since then. It just didn't fit. Well, maybe he'd get a clue by calling around.
"Max, the Big M, the Mangler is back and ready to go to work. By the way, do you have any dope on who tried to do me in?" He asked them all about the "accident." They all said they didn't know. (well, what do you expect, You think one of 'em's gonna come right out and say "Yeah, I told some of my guys to get ya"?)
On the coffee table near the phone lay his scrapbook.
It occupied the focal point of the table. He wasn't worried that any of the marks would use the information against him. Except for the accident, what could they get him for? Assault and Battery? He never carried a weapon, so every one of them had a whole lot more to loose by taking him to court and having their dirty laundry spread out in public. And even if they could make the rap stick, as a first time offender, chances were he'd never spend any time in jail. Besides, who would dare mess with the Mangler? But somebody was trying to mess with him. "Shit"' he whispered angrily and frowned. But looking at the oxblood leather cover of the scrapbook relaxed him. It sure brought back some memories. He kept all the clippings of his work, proud of what he did.
Max thought about his first job. It was hard to believe that it had been almost eight years ago. The guy they had sent him after had been a district superintendent of schools who thought he had a bright future in politics. He was fat, greasy and incompetent. The Peter Principle incarnate. He'd used his power to graduate some dumb sweet thang from high school in exchange for a couple of hot nights in a sleazy motel. The only trouble was that she wasn't so dumb. She wanted more and more money not to tell his wife and the papers. He was into the loan man pretty deep when Max caught him alone in the restroom of a restaurant where he was having dinner with his wife.
Max opened the cover of his scrapbook and looked at the first clipping. He let his photographic memory replay the events of that night. The apartment began to fade, and he was in the restroom again. Drath was combing his Mazola-soaked hair when Max came up behind him, grabbed his shoulder and swung him around, back against the wall. He hit him once in the eye and once in the nose, mashing it to the right. Drath slid down the wall covering his head with his arms, moaning a soft "Uhh."
"Uncover your head," Max instructed quietly with a big smile on his face. Oh, how he loved his work.
"No. Please don't hurt me," Drath moaned, rocking back and forth, blood running down his exposed chin.
"Hey, it's okay, man. I'm not gonna hit you. I just got a message for ya."
Drath uncovered his head haltingly like a girl watching the scary part of a horror movie.
"My man says you been lettin' your debts slide. Time to pay up." Then Max kicked Drath square in the mouth, making a checkered pattern on his two front teeth. Drath put his hands over his mouth, moaned and closed his eyes, Max jerked him up by the lapels of his cheap suit and pushed Drath's hands away from his mangled face. "I wanna remember you just like this," Max said grinning. Then he let go of the fat man who promptly slid back to the floor. Max left.
It was just as clear as the night it happened. As the memory replayed, his new arm swung up, punching him in the eye and nose. Without so much as pausing to wait for him to respond, the knuckles of his first and second fingers bashed his front teeth. Then the arm lay back down at his side as if nothing had happened.
Max's first response was of surprise "Wha?" And then pain, "Uhhh." The moan was strangely familiar, echoing back eight years. His mouth hung open. His eyes brimmed, eyelids tight at half-mast. He smelled a harsh musty odor and sneezed. He felt something warm and liquid trickle into his mouth. It tasted bright and coppery. Wiping the blood from his nose and mouth with his hand, he was surprised that his nose felt numb. His whole head seemed to somehow buzz and float above the pain, although the pain was definitely there. Max got up slowly as if he had a hangover. He held his head back, his right hand tenderly covering his upper lip, keeping the blood back. He walked to the bathroom not moving from the waist up, turning his whole body when he needed to see anything. He turned on the light and looked at his face in the mirror. "Jesus," he whispered closing his eyes. The eye, the angle of the broken nose, the blood, even the checking on his teeth were dead ringers for the injuries he'd done to Drath's face. (What the hell is goin' on?) he wondered as he took the stiff, dusty wash cloth off the towel rack and wet it with cold water.
Max wiped the blood from his nose. The pain was getting a lot more refined now. He tested his teeth by lightly biting down and then wiggling them with his thumb and fingers. The left one moved a little, but he doubted that he'd loose either of them. He opened the medicine cabinet and after searching the shelves, he took down a plastic prescription bottle of Percodan that he'd used when he'd had a wisdom tooth pulled. He started to close the cabinet, stopped and took down his toothbrushes one old and mashed, and one new.
Struggling with the child-proof cap, he finally got it off and swallowed a couple of the tablets dry. He rung out the wash cloth, rolled it up and put it between his teeth as far to the back as the corners of his mouth would stretch, trying to keep away from the injured teeth. Then he shoved the handle of each toothbrush up each nostril. He steadied himself, took a deep breath and jerked his nose back into place. A cold knife stabbed the middle of his face and he smelled the musty odor again. After his eyes finished watering, he examined his work in the mirror. The nose was already beginning to swell, but it looked straight. "Goddab have to do for dow," he mumbled around the washcloth and his stuffed nose. He pulled the bloody toothbrush handles out of his nose and dropped them in the sink. Then he took the washcloth out of his mouth and wiped the fresh blood from his lip. His head throbbed but it still felt light like a balloon. Head back, he shuffled gingerly toward the living room, fully intending to call the doctors and get this thing straightened out.
A whole lot of questions were flooding his mind. It was hard to think past the pain, but something sure as hell wasn't right here, and that something was hanging from his left shoulder. (The thing is supposed to take orders from my brain. But why would it work off the memory of Drath as if I was telling it to? And why would it be doing those things to me? That's what I get for bein' their goddam guinea pig.) The arm was acting fine now. (If I have to get a nose job and get my teeth fixed, them egg suckin' quacks are gonna get their buddies to do the work done for free.) He frowned down at his newleft hand. All that bashing and it wasn't so much as scratched. Then he smiled. (If they can get the son of a bitch fixed, it's gonna make for some pretty good ass kickin'.) He looked at the hand again and it reminded him of Mike Teller.
Mike had been one of the kids in school, and he'd always been the leader in the jokes on Max. He was the first real former class mate Max had ever collected from. Mike had become a fairly successful piano player, very popular in the studios, and it looked like he was going to be very hot stuff as the musical arranger for a new TV series. But Mike liked cocaine. Mike thought he needed it. So he borrowed money. Lots of money. To make him pay, Max decided to go for Mike's hands.
When Max showed up at Mike's apartment, Mike didn't recognize him and certainly didn't know what he was there for. Max introduced himself. While they shook hands, Max told him the reason for his visit as he tightened the vise of his well exercised grip. Before Max was done, Mike pleaded and apologized for everything in the world including the crucifixion of Christ. And then Max had pushed the fingers all the way back to Mike's wrist, snapping all four of them and Mike's TV career in the same motion.
As Max reveled in the living color replay, his new arm crossed swiftly and smoothly, the left hand circling the right fingers. In one single precise movement, Max's right hand was a duplicate of Mike's.
The cracking sound and the pain hit at once. Max sat bolt upright and sucked in a breath with a whooshing sound. "Oh, Jesus!" he shouted. "Goddab it! Goddab it to hell!" He leaned over on the treasonous arm and stood up. He tensed his neck muscles and made his head shiver. Grabbing his right wrist with his left hand, he rocked back and forth. "Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!" he said through clenched teeth, stomping his feet on the floor. His head didn't feel so light any more. His hospital breakfast felt pretty heavy in his stomach, too.
He looked down at the broken hand. All four fingers pointed backward as if the back of the hand should have been the palm, and they stuck out at bizarre angles. The bones of the first and second fingers were sticking through the flesh where they joined the hand. The bone was a striking white against the percolating blood. Above the wrist and especially across his face, Max was turning a ghastly white. He threw up, causing his head and hand to pound even more. In a sickened rage he vowed, "Them friggid doctors are gonna pay for this." Tears welled up in his eyes. He went into the bedroom, pulled open the closet and yanked a white shirt from a hanger. With his left hand, he carefully wrapped the shirt around the broken hand to stop the bleeding. Being careful didn't help much. The whole thing was on fire. He got a pair of socks from the dresser, tied one around his wrist as a tourniquet, dropping the other sock on the floor. He stumbled back into the living room and grabbed the phone.
Max put the earpiece to his left ear and held it in place with his shoulder. He pressed the zero button. The line clicked and began ringing. The pain swept him hard. "C'MON!!" He looked at his left arm and thought (If your right hand offends thee...)
The operator came on. "Operator."
"Get be Dr. Stutes at Kaiser Hospital.'
"Have you looked in your directory?"
"Look, operator. I've bid id ad accident! By hads are broken! I had to dial the phone With my nose! THIS IS A GODDAB EBERGETCY!"
The phone went dead for about ten seconds. Max heard some clicking, one ring and then, "Dr. Stutes' office."
"I deed to talk to Dr. Stutes. This is ad ebergetcy."
"I'm afraid he can't be reached, he's in his car. Can I take a message?"
(Oh, Jesus.) "This is Max Brat..."
"Brat... Brat... Oh, Brant, aren't you the man with the computer arm?"
"Yes, oh, yes," Max said relieved that he didn't have to explain. "That's the probleb. Somethig's wrog with it. It's gawd berserk."
"Oh, well, maybe Dr. K. can help. I'll ring the receptionist and have her transfer your call."
Max heard two loud clicks followed by a pause filled with the sound of the line open into Dr. Stutes' office. The girl made two more clicks and there was another pause.
Max was sure of it now. Something was definitely wrong with the arm. Somehow it was confusing the violent memories with direct orders. He looked over at the scrapbook as it lay open to the first page. An image started to form in his mind and with a thud of his heart he pushed it away. (No, don't think of it! Don't think of anything!) But the image and all the others pushed, like mega tons of water behind some puny match stick dam. It was like a lesson one of his science teachers had taught when they studied a chapter on psychology. "The mind is naturally curious," he'd said. "In many ways, even the adult mind is like that of a little child. Tell it not to think of something and that's exactly what it will think about. For example, try not to think of a pink elephant." Everyone had paused, blank-faced, for a second and then laughed. But right now it didn't seem very funny. There were a whole lot of pink elephants on three dimensional eidetic tapes just waiting for Max to say, "Don't think of..."
The switchboard lady came on the line. "Yes?"
The lady in Dr. Stutes' office asked, 'Can you put this call through to Dr. K's office?"
There was a click and a phone on the other end rang. "Dr. Kosakowski's office."
"This... (KOSAKOWSKI???!!!) Max threw the phone as if he had just discovered that it had Black Widow spiders crawling all over it. A movie of a man falling started playing somewhere in his head. "NNNOOO!" he shouted, covering his head with his hands. Touching his head with the broken hand sent a bolt of searing pain down his right arms and the vision was gone. "Don't think of it! Don't think of it!" Max raved in terror. "Think of something else. Anything else. Uh, uh let's see." He looked around for something to concentrate on and saw the book. "No. No. Jesus Christ not that!" (Don't think of pink elephants. Pink elephants. That's it!) He locked onto the image and clung to it for dear life.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, behind the movie screen filled with smiling Walt Disney elephants dancing in tutus, Max had a conversation going on. (Kosakowski? Could it really be the same one? Well, not the same one, he's dead. He died when I pushed... PINK ELEPHANTS! PINK ELEPHANTS. Maybe someone related? That would explain everything. He programmed the arm. He's one of his relatives, a brother maybe. He set it up so that, so that...)
A picture of Kosakowski falling flashed through Max's mind
But the arm was lifting him up, straightening his legs, pulling him to his feet, forcing him toward the open door to the patio. Max leaned backward fearfully averting his eyes from the patio door. The arm snapped itself outward, its computer making the necessary corrections in the inertia of Max's body. His legs strained backward and one foot got caught on the other. He fell. The arm began picking him up again. Max thought, (It can't throw me over the balcony if I can't walk! But how...?) And then he had an idea. It was a chance. God, he couldn't take any more pain, but he had to do it. He'd seen the cursed thing at work, and if he didn't want to turn out like some crazy human pancakes he had to do it. He frantically searched for the right memory as the arm had him almost off the floor. A picture of one of his victims with a broken leg flashed onto his memory screen replacing Kosakowski.
The arm stopped. Without its lifting force, Max fell on his behind. It knocked the wind out of him. He began a crab-like scramble backwards away from the door. He had moved about two feet when the arm smashed through his left shin. The pain shot through the entire left side of his body and he snapped flat on his back screaming, as much from joy as from pain. He'd beat the arm.
The arm switched gears and forced Max's knees to bend. A new wave of molten fire exploded up his leg, sweat burned his eyes. But he was still forced upward. The arm was trying to get him on his feet again, but the shattered ends of the bones of his left leg bypassed each other ripping through the flesh, offering no support on that side. The computer adjusted and began rolling him across the floor, unmindful of his pain. The left foot was turned almost all the way around and it dangled loosely like the head on a Jack-in-the-box spring. He screamed and screamed and screamed and still he moved forward. His face was ashen and his broken leg left bright red smears on the carpet where the blood had soaked through his trousers.
The arm rolled him by throwing each of his other limbs forward and then wedging itself under his torso and flipping him over. On his face, on his back, on his face again. Nearer and nearer to the patio, twenty stories from the ground. He tried to resist, but the thing was tied directly to his brain and was able to anticipate his every move, heading it off, He was sobbing "Oh, God, please, no. I'll do anything. I'll pay them all back. Kosakowski...he was an accident. I swear it. Please. Please!" Max was drooling and bloody mucus drained from his nose.
He was across the door runner now, mostly on the patio. Only his broken leg was inside. The arm grabbed it and pulled, bashing it against the door frame, bending the leg at an awful angle. Max barely felt it. He was in shock. A numb, humming-like vibration had surrounded his mind, a blanket from the pain. His eyes were full of terror. The arm flipped him once more and then grabbed the railing. The first heave lifted him up and half over the railing. He felt something give at the shoulder. If he could just hold on, it might tear itself off completely. Max tried to hold onto the railing with his right hand, but the twisted fingers wouldn't work. So he hooked the crook of the elbow under the railing. He looked down and the fright instantaneously strengthened him. But it was no match for the independent mind of the arm. One last heave and he was falling.
His arms reached, the deadly arm belatedly under his control, but there was nothing left to hang onto. His head passed the patio floor. Then his body stopped with a sudden sickening grinding, tearing jerk. The odd jutting angle of his broken leg had caused his foot to be wedged between the bars of the patio. An incinerator blast burned through the numbness and then disappeared.
The execution of its program incomplete, the arm began to jerk, thrusting itself again and again toward the ground. Then it began climbing up Max's trousers, forcing his body to follow. It reached the foot. Using leverage against the patio bars, it twisted the foot upright. Max, the Mangler, fell.
His mind raced at the speed of light, so the fall seemed slow. The shock blanket dropped and the pain swept in. He was acutely aware of every detail of every injury, and for a moment he was consumed by a strange embracing of the pain. His life flashed in front of him, but he didn't pay much attention. He'd already seen it when he lost his arm. It was just a bad movie he didn't care to see again. He faced down and saw the ground as though through the wrong end of a telescope. As the features of the groundscape expanded before him, the calm was slept away and a sudden utter mortal fear washed back in. His eyes went wide and then slammed shut. He gasped, held his breath, tensed every muscle and clamped his jaw shut. Instinctively he put out his arms to break his fall. Instantly the pain was gone.
A blood and tissue spattered disembodied arm moved away from a very flat mass of gore that would have reminded Max of the time his German Shepherd had been run over by a semi. Fingers worked against the heel of the hand to drag the elbow and flesh-and-plastic-and-electric wired shoulder off the concrete and onto a grassy knoll. It turned and "faced" the puddle. The fingernails formed what looked like the crescent-shaped smile of the Cheshire Cat. Somewhere deep in the memory made up of tiny computer circuitry and magnetic zeros and ones, a message went out. The arm began to move in a pattern that a deaf person might recognize. It said, "What goes around, comes around. What goes around, comes around. What goes around..."
© 1998 Jonathan Stars
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